Divorce, Coen brothers style

Seven years have passed since Joel and Ethan Coen struck gold with "Fargo," still regarded by many as their best movie.

Recent pictures such as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Man Who Wasn't There" made far smaller splashes, pointing to a clear lesson for the talented brothers: If you want to avoid the label of "offbeat cineastes" creating "art films" for more fun than profit, make another box- office success pronto!

And so we have "Intolerable Cruelty," their most openly commercial comedy since "Raising Arizona" in 1987. Taking no chances about this, they called in two additional writers to help them pen an audience-friendly screenplay. And Ethan coproduced with Brian Grazer, a Hollywood hitmaker with pictures such as "A Beautiful Mind" and "The Nutty Professor" among his credits.

The cast also has clout. George Clooney plays an attorney who falls for a gorgeous gold digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while representing her spouse (Edward Herrmann) in their divorce. Also present are Geoffrey Rush as her first husband, Billy Bob Thornton as her second, and Cedric the Entertainer as an uproarious private eye.

The film aims for the sort of zesty one-liners and zany coincidences found in classic '40s comedies by Preston Sturges, a powerful influence on the Coens' career. But with the outside writing and producing help in "Cruelty," is the distinctive Coen style still recognizable?

In a word, yes. "Intolerable Cruelty" is a romantic comedy, but it has enough dark, strange, and cynical moments to qualify as a full-fledged part of the Coen canon. Like many of their pictures, it's bumpy, uneven, and less amusing than it wants to be. But it's far more clever than most of the fluff passed off as romantic comedy these days, and that alone makes it one of the season's more worthy attractions.

Rated PG-13; contains sexual humor.

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